Author: Sunhawk

Directions (cont.)

'Still fighting. Against very real demons.' he corrected, and if the reach across the table hadn't been too far, I think he would have pulled my hand up and kissed it. 'And you're not scrawny enough to be Don Quixote.'

It let me laugh a snort of a laugh, but I had to look away from the fierce light in his eyes. 'Ok, Sancho... I'm sorry I asked, already. I give.'

But my capitulating didn't stop him; teach me to give him openings. 'You excel at everything you do because of that tenacity.'

I made a grumbling little noise, hunting for words that would change the subject, but he tugged at my hand until I met his eyes again.

'I have faith in your strength of spirit,' he said and then let me go.

I watched him spear the last of his salad for a minute. He seemed to be done, and I was pretty damn glad; I was developing a theory that the human body can only handle so much blushing before... something bad happens. Kind of like blowing a fuse on an electrical circuit. I gathered up the trash from my dinner and rose to take it into the kitchen to throw away. Passing through the kitchen doorway, behind his back, where I didn't have to meet that intense, blue-eyed gaze, I stopped.

'That... means a lot to me,' I told him. 'But let's not make a habit of hashing it over.'

I thought he'd let it go, but there was a quiet chuckle behind me. 'You did ask.'

'And I learned my lesson,' I muttered, going on into the kitchen before he could say anything else.

Why do all my warm fuzzies come wrapped up with terminal embarrassment?

I went to drag my carburetor out of the cabinet where I'd hidden it when Relena came over, to respread it on the smaller kitchen table. I really needed to have the car running before Monday, just in case Heero needed to drive separately. With the conference coming up, some of his days had been spent in places that were not the office, and I'd had to take myself to work.

The blush was even pretty well gone by the time Heero came in to wash up his dishes. We worked on opposite sides of the kitchen in a silence that was only tinged with faint awkwardness, before he finished up and came over to drop a kiss on the top of my head.

'Need a hand?' he asked and I was kind of relieved that he was going to honor my wishes to drop the previous subject. Sometimes he will, and sometimes he has to push it.

'Nah, I'm almost done with this part anyway,' I told him, being down to the reassembly. 'And I'll wait to put it back on until tomorrow, when I have the light.'

'Ok, I'm going to go check my e-mail while you're working on this then,' he said, and trailing his fingers across my shoulders as he went, he left the room.

There is a pad of paper and a pencil on the kitchen table, there under the phone for taking notes. I managed to get four screws put back in place before the pencil found its way into my hand and there were suddenly a half a dozen sheets of paper with arching shapes on them, each doodled with some variation of the theme of alien plant life.

I was pretty sure by sheet number four that the idea was a bad one, but couldn't quite help poking at it to be sure. The concept was... interesting, but not as easy as you'd think. What makes a plant a plant? Well... they're green, usually, and leafy, mostly. There have to be recognizable aspects or it's not a plant. But in order for it to be alien, those aspects had to be unrecognizable enough to be, well... alien. I really didn't think I could pull that off on a canvas the size we were talking about, and I was sure of that fact when I found myself doodling a vaguely leaf shaped thing with tiny arms and legs attacking a caterpillar with a dinky little spear.

'What'n hell are you on?' Solo asked from somewhere above my right shoulder, leaning down from his seat in mid-air to peer at my scraps of paper.

'I dunno,' I muttered. 'But it's apparently not strong enough.'

'Yer way over-thinking this, rat-boy,' he snorted and had he actually been real, he'd have probably wadded up my scribbles and bounced them off my head.

'If you've got any better ideas, asshole,' I grumbled at him. 'I'd be happy to hear them.'

'Tank coulda come up with better'n this crap,' he informed me, and I thought about shuffling them away so he couldn't see, but that was just kind of stupid, so I didn't act on the impulse.

'Damn inconvenient, you not being real,' I told him on a sudden thought. 'You could go haunt Mr. Lee and come back and tell me what he really wants done.'

On a whim, I gave the caterpillar some body armor.

'Real cute,' Solo chuckled in his mocking sort of way. 'When'd ya get all goofball and girly?'

I blew a raspberry, but otherwise chose to ignore him, deciding to shut up before Heero heard me talking to myself. Though it crossed my mind to wonder if Solo... I mean, my sub-conscious wasn't trying to tell me something. Was I thinking too 'light weight'? Maybe the commission needed to be something more... meaningful?

'Meaningful?' Solo jeered. 'I'm outta here.'

I spared him a wave of my fingers and wondered why he didn't make a noise when he vanished. Like the comic book characters when they teleported? Though I suppose as much as he popped in and out, that could get annoying.

I thought the caterpillar needed some sort of weapon with which to defend himself from the invading leaf creature, but I couldn't figure out how he'd hold it with nothing but feet. But then... maybe the leaf creature was just defending itself against being eaten? I mean... don't caterpillars eat plants? Who was the real bad 'guy' here?

That made me stop and blink stupidly at the little papers littering the table. I think they constituted 'off track'. With a sigh, I gathered them up and tossed them in the trash can under the sink. Pretty safe bet that extraterrestrial plants were a no go. Which left me with what? Golf? Roses? Anti-gravity?

I abandoned carburetor, caterpillars, and kitchen for my laptop, with the remembrance of that research I'd planned on doing. There was probably a lot I could find out about Mr. Lee from the internet. Starting with what those special roses looked like... just to continue the plant life theme.

It took a little bit of work, 'Jack Lee Roses' just popped up a billion genealogy sites for more variations on that string of names than I cared to count. I kept adding words until I wasn't getting any hits at all, and finally started off in a different direction; finding the site for the local chapter of the Earth Rose Society, and working my way backward to my goal.

I should have stuck with the alien veggies... roses are damned complicated. Floribunda? Grandiflora? Tea? Hybrids? It took a bit of poking around; Mr. Lee's prize winning pride and joy had been a couple of seasons prior. The pictures were a little off the main web site... fame is apparently fleeting, in the circle of horticulture.

I don't know squat about roses, but even I was impressed. The thing was of the previously mentioned grandiflora variety, and apparently those suckers could get pretty big. There was a series of professionally posed (can you 'pose' a flower?) pictures that just sort of made me want to plant roses all the hell over the property. The blooms were a rich orange, fading rather abruptly at the edges to white. They looked 'frosted'. The site had all manner of frou-frou wording about 'rich golden' this and 'kissed' that. It made me roll my eyes just reading it. Wasn't named for his mother though, unless the woman had had some seriously deranged parents. The tag proclaimed it to be the 'Jyp-C'. I was actually off looking at something else before the pun trickled down into my brain. A rose. Named Jyp-C. Produced by a man named Lee. I wondered just how many people got the joke? I probably wouldn't have either if Toria hadn't been such a huge fan of pre-colony edge of weird film, and had forced Hayden and me to embrace her hobby. I snorted at my own laptop screen, wondering once again just what in the heck kind of guy Jack Lee really was. Faceted, Trowa had said.

'What?' Heero asked, appearing suddenly at my side and leaning down to look at my screen. 'Please tell me you're not planning on replanting the whole yard in rose bushes?'

'Just trying to figure this Jack Lee guy out,' I told him, scrolling to show him the head-shot of the man in question, by way of explanation. I waited while he quickly scanned the text and got the gist of it.

'How in the hell do you produce new colors?' he wondered idly, his brow furrowed in obvious confusion. It made me think about it and I chuckled.

'Rose dating services?' I quipped and he looked at me oddly. 'No? More like arranged marriages, then?'

That made him roll his eyes and he reached out to tug at my hand. 'Come on, it's bed time.'

'You go ahead,' I told him. 'I just want to trace this back a bit more and see if I can...'

'Oh no,' he cut me off, tugging harder. 'If I leave you alone, you'll still be down here in the morning researching... God knows; cupcake recipes or something.'

Since the tug was rather insistent, I let him pull me away, leaving the laptop sitting there with roses glowing on the screen. Heero'd obviously already made the nightly rounds, and he had only to flip the living room light off before we made our way up the stairs. Though it was quite a while before we got around to the sleeping part of that bed time thing.

The sweat was still cooling on our skin when I finally made the backward trace in my head. 'Cupcake... icing... frosting... frosted roses. Heero! You made a series of random mental leaps; I'm so proud!'

I, perhaps, should have waited to make the joke until his head wasn't still resting where it was, because the line got me nipped on the thigh. I nipped back, and it roused him enough from the sleepy, lazy afterglow to settle us for the night.

The breath stirring the hair on the back of my neck had already started to even out, when he murmured, 'Love you, baby.'

I snorted softly, but couldn't see his face, 'Love you... cupcake,' I replied, but he was so far gone he didn't notice. It made me wonder what about our earlier conversation had brought that term out. It's not one he uses often. Maybe all that talk about faith and fighting had made him think back to the accident? I hoped not, I didn't like to think of him falling asleep with those kinds of thoughts.

Though somewhere in the night, my own memories mated with the talk of roses and arranged marriages, and I woke in the early hours thinking about Wufei and his bride again. I suppose it was a change from trying to puzzle out Mr. Lee, but it was just puzzling of a different flavor, so I'm not sure I could call it a pleasant change.

Still couldn't get over the notion of taking two little kids and arbitrarily deciding they should be joined in holy matrimony for some purpose other than love, or even severe like. Just sounded like the ultimate in 'awkward moments' if you asked me.

But then I didn't much get the notion of eating things like snails and fish eggs either, but apparently they're considered lip smacking good in some corners of the world. So what the hell; maybe there was something to it.

Though... you ever wonder about the first guy to look at a snail and question if he could eat it?

I think I've mentioned that I seem to need slightly less sleep than Heero, and on days when we don't have to be somewhere, I tend to rise well ahead of him. I don't always, but I find if I stay in bed once I'm awake, it isn't long before I disturb him. Now and again for a little bit of 'morning' time isn't bad, but most of the time I don't like to feel like I'm keeping him from getting a good night's sleep. So I slipped out of bed that morning with my thoughts and puzzles, and went back downstairs to my research, leaving Heero to sleep in if he could. It was Sunday after all... that whole, weird ground-bounder 'day of rest' thing.

I think I knew before I was even done in the bathroom, that I wasn't going to be looking at roses when I got my fingers on my keyboard.

You know that thing called a census? When mankind took off for the stars, they got even more anal about it. I think, originally, some ground-bound space-phobic bureaucrat just wanted to be able to point to a definitive list of the 'the lost' when the colony program failed. And even though it had ended up thriving, the process had already been set in motion. So there were detailed records all the way back to the very first launch of the very first ship carrying the very first colonists off to the very first colony. And public record, so I didn't even have to do anything Heero would have frowned on to get at them. Or... would have frowned on me doing from my own computer.

Wufei himself had inadvertently given me her name once I'd dredged it up from memory, and I could guess her age based on his. Still took a lot of digging; the name was not screamingly unique. It was actually Wufei's comment about her temperament that told me when I'd found the right girl. And the date of death only verified it.

They used those cheesy class pictures for the kids. I had wandered through a series of prim and proper young Chinese ladies, dressed in their best for 'picture day', with not a hair out of place and delicate little smiles on their faces before I found it.

Long Meilan was neither prim nor proper, glaring out at the photographer with a look that probably had the man snapping the picture as quick as he could. Her hair was caught up in practical little pig tails and her expression told me that she so had better things to be doing with her time. I could almost hear her asking the man behind the camera 'May I go now?' in a tone laced with cool disdain. I wanted to laugh at her; what a spitfire she must have been! And then I wanted to cry, looking at all that potential. Looking at... at I wasn't quite sure what, really. Not from just one old photograph.

And maybe that was part of it; if she could speak to me so firmly from just that one picture, what a force of personality she must have been. And it made me think about that arranged marriage thing, and think that maybe it wasn't so damn nuts after all, because if there had ever been a match for Chang Wufei... I was looking at it. I could stare into those dark eyes and tell just how she would have grown. How that temper that burned in that gaze would have matured over time into a tenacity that would never have allowed for the word 'no'. She would have been beautiful in that striking way women can be when they just don't care about it.

'Oh, Wufei,' I whispered, touching the screen of my laptop as though I could bridge the years and grant them the time to grow up. I felt the grief of his quietly under-stated little 'too late' like I hadn't when he'd actually said it.

'Duo?' Heero asked, seeming to suddenly appear beside me and I about jumped out of my skin.

'God,' I gasped. 'Don't do that!'

He spared me a little grimace of apology, but went right ahead sliding an arm around me. 'What is it, love? You look upset...'

I leaned into him a little; still recovering from the shot of adrenaline he'd given my heart, and flicked my fingers toward the laptop. He turned that way, when I didn't elaborate and I waited while he took in the information in front of him. He's a quick study and it was all right there in black and white... much faster than my trying to explain it.

'That's Wufei's... betrothed?' he finally asked, voice going all weirdly reverent and I knew he'd caught at least some of the same feeling I had. 'How...?'

'The colony may be gone,' I told him. 'But the records were central.'

He let go of me to lean in for a closer look. 'I never even thought to hunt,' he said, sounding kind of guilty for some reason. 'I wonder if Wufei ever did?'

I didn't answer because... who the hell knew? It wasn't a question that required a response, but it sure made me think. Made me doubt that Wufei would welcome having it pointed out to him. Made me wonder if he would be grateful to have it pointed out to him. I decided it was something I'd have to think about for a long time before I even thought about bringing it up to him. Heero noticed the links I hadn't bothered to yet, and clicked over to a page that contained a different picture. For two seconds I was confused about how there could exist a picture of Meilan all grown up, but then I realized it had to be her mother.

It told me just a little bit more what she would have been like if she'd grown. They looked very much alike; the structure of the features, the cast to the eyes. Though the elder woman held a certain serenity, I had no doubt the spirit was there. Then Heero clicked again and we were looking at the father. And there was that burning fierceness staring back at me. Meilan might have inherited her mother's looks, but that temper came from dear old Dad sure as anything. I could imagine that same 'May I go now?' from the man, only much testier.

Another click and we were looking at Meilan again and Heero muttered softly 'What a waste.' So softly, in fact, that I'm not sure he meant to say it out loud.

I didn't reply to that either and it made Heero turn to look at me.

'Are you all right?' he asked me gently and I gave him a quirk of a smile.

'Yeah,' I reassured. 'Just... I guess I could see her being one of 'mine', you know? She's probably Davey's age in that picture. Maybe a little younger. It's so easy to imagine what she was like.'

He glanced back at the screen and suddenly seemed to be uncomfortable with the whole thing, because he reached out and closed the window. I didn't object; I could find it again if I wanted... and I wasn't sure I wanted. She was already tucked away like a damn memory of somebody I actually had known.

It left us staring at roses again and Heero sighed. 'You didn't...' he began but I cut him off with a chuckle.

'Only a couple of hours.' But then I glanced at the clock and realized it was a bit later than normal. 'You slept late.'

He looked only slightly sheepish. 'You wore me out. Breakfast?'

I smiled my acceptance and he went off to see what he could find. Somehow Sunday morning breakfast had become a strange little 'thing' with him. He claimed that I cooked for him every day and he just wanted to return the favor, but I suspect it was just his way to assure that at least one day a week my breakfast wasn't a ration bar on the run.

I poked half-heartedly at Jack Lee's life while I waited, but only managed to verify some time-line issues. Very unlikely that the man harbored any bitterness over the whole anti-gravity development thing. In fact, he'd more likely been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, if you know what I mean. The family had to have been insanely rich by the time he came along, and looking at the hints of a family tree I could find on-line... all that money had to have come down to Jack himself. Didn't seem to be any other 'branch' off his Grandpa's tree.

Guess that pretty much answered the question of what Jack Lee did for a 'living'; what ever the fuck he wanted.

By the time Heero called me in to breakfast, I'd decided that I was tired of roses, murals and pasts all the way around. I was just getting ready to shut my laptop down when my 'new message' notification chimed at me. When the message downloaded from Wufei, I had a truly bizarre moment of horrified guilt that he somehow knew that I'd been poking around in his private affairs. I almost snickered out loud when it only proved to be the list of gardening supplies he'd promised me. I sent it off to the upstairs printer, then finished shutting down; determined to get something accomplished that didn't involve a keyboard and mouse.

Breakfast was oatmeal and toast with fresh fruit on the side, and I accepted it without any fuss. Yeah, it was a ridiculous amount of food, but I'd figured out the Sunday morning thing was something special for Heero and I didn't want to ruin it. I wasn't sure what the deal was entirely, but Heero was always rather affectionate about the whole thing. Hell, we both happened to still be barefoot, and the guy even sat and rubbed his toes over mine under the table. I'd figure it out some day, but I didn't want to risk spoiling it by asking.

'So,' I ventured when we got to the you wash, I'll dry part, 'fancy a trip to the home improvement store this afternoon?'

'The center of all things gadgety?' Heero grinned. 'What do we need now? I thought we already owned one of everything?'

I threatened him with the tail of the dish towel but didn't follow through since he was armed with suds; never go against a projectile weapon with a close range one. 'Hardly. We haven't even scratched the surface of the garden center.'

'I'm not even sure what we need...' he began, but stopped at my wide grin.

'I got recommendations from an expert; Wufei sent me a shopping list!'

'Why do I think I should be scared?' he dead-panned, and I went ahead and snapped the towel in his general direction.

'We've got to get all the crap cleaned out from around the foundation,' I told him. 'Hell... that's probably part of what's attracting the critters. And we need to be thinking about a lawn mower...'

'Couldn't we just hire the kid down the street?' he asked, draining the dish water and rinsing his hands.

'I thought you wanted to save money to have the kitchen redone, lazy?' I said, poking him in the ribs until he gave enough ground that I could open the cabinet door and hang the towel up.

'How much could it cost?' he grumbled.

'Too much,' I smirked and it made him laugh.

'You asked?'

'Of course,' I sniffed disdainfully. 'I had to weigh the cost options.'

He snorted and hooked an arm around my waist to pull me in for a quick kiss. 'Well, regardless, I can't go anyway... I have to go in to the office this afternoon.'

I kissed him back and sighed. 'I'll be damn glad when this stupid conference is over. What is it this time? All the department heads want to synchronize watches?'

He gave me a mock glare and shook his head. 'Not sure yet; the L4 delegate is suddenly throwing a hissy fit about the safety precautions. Wufei and I are meeting with his head of security to go over their concerns.'

My abrupt burst of laughter caught him completely by surprise. 'You can thank Quatre; he must have gotten around to telling the guy he wasn't staying at his place,' I explained, stifling my chuckles against Heero's shoulder.

'Damn it,' he grumbled, sounding about half serious. 'Why the hell do you know more than I do about my job?'

'I have connections,' I teased and he just shook his head, letting me go as I headed off in search of shoes and socks. I hadn't even made it out the kitchen door when I heard him open the cabinet door and there was a sharp intake of breath.

'Damn it, Duo!' he said, in such a tone of exasperation that I about gave myself whiplash turning around to see what I'd done wrong. I was not expecting to see him fishing in the trash can like I'd thrown away his badge and gun. Even less was I expecting to see him come up with a handful of papers, glaring at me like I'd thrown away kittens. 'How could you...' he began but then just kind of petered out with an incoherent sound of frustration. He took the papers over to the table and spread them out, checking them for... something. Damage, I guess.

It took me a minute to even figure out what they were; I couldn't remember throwing anything away that I thought would bother him. When I stepped in to look, he was reverently brushing crumbs off a Martian begonia. 'Oh for God's sake...' I muttered. 'Heero, those are trash... just stupid doodles I made trying to work an idea out.'

He looked like he was going to launch into an argument, but suddenly just looked stubborn, changing tactics. 'Well, I saved them so they're mine now.'

It left me blinking at him. Did he think I was going to snatch them out of his hands or something? Were we five years old to go scrabbling around on the kitchen floor fighting over...

Ok, that brought back a mental image I didn't really want to be having, so I just shook my head. 'Ok,' I assured him. 'If you really want the dumb things.'

He smiled, a hint of sheepishness to it, and went back to studying the little sketches. I watched him look for a minute, before going back to my quest for shoes.

Art was an area where I don't think Heero and I will ever see eye to eye. Just the term itself made me uncomfortable. 'Art' like it was some high-falutin' big deal thing, instead of just something I did in my spare time. That he was perfectly capable of having a ten minute, absent minded doodle of an armored caterpillar matted and framed just because it was something I'd done, was... embarrassing.

Ok, and maybe just a little bit sweet, not that I'd admit that even under torture. If I encouraged the man, he'd be unbearable.

I put on my work boots, and a pair of my coveralls as well, since I was going to be elbow deep in my engine for the next hour or so. By the time I had my tools and carburetor together, Heero was on his way out the door too, to head into town. We walked outside together and he gave me a quick kiss goodbye right there on the porch. It was still an odd little rush that we could do things like that; at the old apartment, there were just too many people around. People who could be shocked sometimes. It still made me just a touch uneasy, but it was kind of balanced by the warmth of being able to.

'When do you think you'll be home?' I asked as we made our way down the front steps.

'Not sure,' he sighed. 'This could end up taking awhile. Since we have to go in anyway, I think I'd like to get some of the paperwork caught up that has gotten neglected while we concentrated on the conference. If you decide to go down to the garden center, don't wait for me.'

I grinned at him widely, hoping it hid the tiny twinge of disappointment. 'I'll be sure to take the credit card,' I teased and he poked me in the ribs before stepping toward his car.

'We're saving money for the kitchen, remember?'

'I'm not the one with the problem with the kitchen,' I smiled and he just rolled his eyes.

'I'll see you when I get home,' he told me. 'I'll call if we decide to make an evening of it.'

I waved him off and tried not to think bad thoughts about politicians, counsel meetings, or the Preventers in general. I was getting kind of tired of the lot of them mucking up what was supposed to be our time off.

It took me less than an hour to get the carburetor put back on, and then I took my shopping list and took off for the home improvement store.

And yes, the ax really was on my list. Wufei put it there. That or a chainsaw, and the ax was a hell of a lot cheaper. I didn't get everything on his list; the lawn mower could wait a little longer, and was a big enough purchase that I didn't want to make it without Heero. But I went ahead and got what I felt like we were going to need for at least the next couple of weeks. It was getting to be pretty damn obvious that Heero wasn't going to have a lot of free time until after the conference, to go shopping.

There really are a lot of tools out there designed expressly for chopping things up. Axes and shears, clippers and hatchets, saws and weed whackers. Like... industrial strength confetti makers. I limited myself to the ax and a pruning saw for the purposes of taking down the dead apple tree, and a pair of hand clippers for the smaller jobs around the yard. A rake, a shovel, an economy size box of trash bags, some work gloves and a little hand spade took me over the vague 'budget' I'd had in mind, but I still ended up buying some chain to fix the porch swing. Then on the way through the check-out couldn't quite resist the book on the care and feeding of your average rose garden. Needed to figure out that whole roses-on-the-fence-row thing, so my neighbor didn't wind up hating me for killing them.

And then I went to wage war.

Ok, so it was more like a tentative foray into enemy territory for the purposes of reconnaissance. And maybe some hostage taking. If only gross, rotting leaves would fall to the pressures of dire threats to their brethren.

I had really had no idea what a disgusting, slimy, crawling eco system existed under those self-same leaves. I'd have to remember to thank Wufei for thinking about noting the work gloves, because I have no doubt my spacer soul would have been other-wise traumatized by wading in there without. It took all bloody damn afternoon to rake the crap out and bag it up just down the north side of the house.

I get the whole 'circle of life' thing, ok? I understand that the birds have to eat, and that they will elsewhere be on the receiving end of that, right on up the chain. I get the part where when things die, without being the afore-mentioned appetizer, that you don't just want them lying around rotting forever and that's where the bugs come in on the other end of things. I get the concept, I really, really do. But, seriously, what deity decided that there needed to be so damn many different varieties of bugs, and that they had to be so... crawly?

I hadn't been working an hour before I just wanted a damn shower.

I entertained myself for a good chunk of the afternoon, trying to figure out just what would have to be nailed down in order to vent our entire property to vacuum. Given that it was possible, of course. If I could put an airlock in next to the willow tree or something.

That led to a mental picture of zero gravity dancers amid a swirl of autumn leaves and I actually contemplated it for my commission for about two minutes before I realized it would just end up looking like a damn self-portrait. Or that's what people would think anyway.

Solo kept me dubious company for part of the day, sitting on the back steps or hovering nearby. Sometimes offering suggestions and sometimes idly singing something that wouldn't quite come clear in my head, though I was sure I heard the word 'lumberjack' a couple of times. He was quite smugly pleased with himself, though I suppose that pretty much describes his mood most of the time. Or it did. He quit when I started singing the spider song back at him... he used to hate spiders.

It was getting pretty late by the time I attacked the actual apple tree, using my spiffy new pruning saw to hack off a couple of smaller limbs just to see how it would go. It was getting too dark to do anything major, but I suppose I couldn't quite resist the lure. Never cut down a tree before, dead or otherwise. It didn't take long to figure out that it was going to be a lot of work. And pretty messy. The thing didn't really look that big, but just the few limbs I cut off quickly turned into a pile of brush that was going to have to be bagged or bundled or otherwise disposed of.

And apparently dead wood is hard. Or maybe apple tree wood is. Or dead apple tree wood is? Whatever the combination, by the time Heero got home, my arm was getting damn tired, and I was sweating my butt off despite how the temperature was dropping with the sun.

I heard him pull up, of course, and stopped to watch him climb out of the car and head my way. I saw him eying my mound of trash bags and could see the vaguely guilty look from clear across the yard.

When he got closer, I could see more than the guilt; he looked tired. Physical labor can wear you out, but there's something about the sort of administrative crap he had to have been dealing with all day that can just wear you down.

'I'm sorry...' he began, when he was close enough, and I'm not sure if he was apologizing for forgetting to call, leaving me alone with the bugs, or just the whole big job thing, but I cut him off with a wide grin and wide open arms.

'Come any closer and you'll be sorry for something else entirely,' I smirked, flaunting my filthy, sweaty, utterly disgusting self at him.

It brought him up short, and he eyed me up and down from a safe distance. 'Did you clean out the flower beds, or wallow in them?' he asked, his answering smile kind of wan, but enough to tell me I'd derailed the guilt thing.

'Wallowed,' I informed him, tossing the saw aside and stalking toward him. 'I wanted to share the full experience with you.'

He took an almost involuntary step back and actually looked a bit alarmed. I looked him over, decided he wasn't wearing anything that wouldn't wash, and said the hell with it.

The tackle surprised a burst of laughter from him that he quelled quickly in order to meet the kiss. I drew back and grinned down at him triumphantly; he looked pretty damn good lying in the grass all wide-eyed like that.

'Duo,' he said, in that husky voice I could never quite match. 'You reek. Badly.'

I flopped down full length on top of him and squirmed like a puppy. 'Yes, but now you do to.'

'Brat,' he grumbled, and dug his fingers into my side until I gave ground. With a buck and a shove, he reversed our positions and I found myself sprawled in the grass with him sitting on top of me.

I think we were both too tired for any serious wrestling, and when I didn't struggle, he just sort of sat back and looked around as best he could in the near dark. The melancholy look stole back across his face and I sighed and gave in to his need to apologize.

'You got a lot of work done today,' he said. 'I'm sorry I wasn't here to help.'

'Well it's not like you were off playing cards or something,' I teased, then gave him a mock glare. 'Were you?'

'I wish,' he snorted and stopped looking at the yard to lean down and look at me. 'Senator Rackham is turning out to be a major pain in the ass.'

I was trying to decide between the obvious crude come-back and something more sympathetic, when a somewhat high pitched voice sang out, 'There they are! They're outside! Hey, Mr. Duo!'

If I have moved faster in my life, I don't ever remember doing it. And Heero must have been moving just as fast, or I'd have thrown his ass clear across the yard in my efforts to get off the ground. And out from under him.

'Uh... hello, Ruthie,' I managed, after a moment of mentally convincing myself that my clothes did not need to be straightened.

'See Mom?' she piped up. 'I told you it wasn't too late!'

I must have made a noise that sounded... amusing, because Heero gave out with a funny little cough that was a lame attempt to cover a snicker.

'Well this is humiliating,' I growled under my breath, but he just gave me a smug little smile.

'As I recall, you're the one who started it,' he replied, keeping his voice just as soft, but then Ruthie and her Mom were too close and all I could do was smile.

'Mrs. Rubin, I presume?' Heero greeted our neighbor, so smoothly that I just wanted to kick him. Did nothing fluster the guy? I could feel my own face still flaming like a bed of hot coals, and it was weirdly irritating that Heero was calmly smiling and shaking the woman's hand.

'That's Mr. Heero!' Ruthie supplied and I stuck my own hand out on cue when the kid got to the 'And that's Mr. Duo!' part.

'So nice to finally meet you,' Mrs. Rubin said somewhat... enthusiastically, and it made me realize that, had she noticed the whole frolicking in the grass thing, she probably hadn't been surprised. Guess the likelihood of the woman having seen any one of several news reports lately were pretty high. Almost certainly would have more than clued her in to the... uh... living arrangements of her new neighbors.

There was part of me that wanted to be relieved that she didn't seem overly shocked by the idea, but it was warring with the part that was still smarting over something that private having gotten attached to the line 'film at eleven'. Not that I suppose I had been all that far into the closet, but it's kind of nice when things like that are a conscious choice and not part of tonight's top story.

I missed some of the niceties and was brought back to planet Earth when Ruthie began waving a sheet of paper in my face. '... so would you like some?'

I almost laughed out loud when I realized we'd finally gotten around to the Girl Scout cookie thing. 'Sure,' I told her, and Heero gestured the group of us over toward the front porch.

'Oh, we can't stay,' Mrs. Rubin said, even while she followed Heero's lead. Ruthie and I brought up the rear, me looking at the chart I'd been given, and Ruthie extolling the virtues of various flavors of cookies.

In between having the term 'Tagalong' explained to me and being told which cookie was the favorite of every member of Ruthie's family, I heard Mrs. Rubin comment on 'what we'd done to the old place'. I missed catching which cookie Ruthie's best friend's dog was fond of, while I listened to Heero gracefully give me credit for most of the work. Mrs. Rubin turned to me then, coloring faintly, and seemed to notice her daughter talking my ear off for the first time. It wasn't clear if her discomfort was from the babbling, or just me in general. I hoped to God the woman wasn't going to indulge in some sort of 'celebrity' weirdness.

'Ruthie,' she admonished, though she was still looking at me and not her daughter. 'Give the poor man a chance to make up his mind. I'm sure he's seen Girl Scout cookies before!'

I didn't bother setting her straight on that score; wouldn't know a Girl Scout cookie from a Boy Scout cookie. Assuming there was such a thing. I almost asked, but then realized that it was probably one of those things that would make people look at me funny. We'd arrived at the steps and apparently an understanding had been reached somewhere while I'd been listening to the history of peanut butter, and we weren't inviting them in. So I sat on the steps and filled out the sheet against my knee.

'It is just so nice that the house isn't empty any more,' Mrs. Rubin was telling Heero, still looking weirdly flushed, not seeming to know quite what to do with her hands. 'It was such a beautiful place before Trishie took sick.'

'Trishie?' I heard myself ask almost incredulously. Somehow, in trying to make up my mind how the former owner had been called, I'd settled on 'Pat' in my head. Trishie... was not keeping with the mental images I'd had.

Mrs. Rubin kind of giggled, seeming suddenly to be embarrassed by the sound. She flushed even deeper and her hands fluttered up to tuck her hair behind her ear. 'Oh, she always insisted that her name was Patricia, she hated being called Patty, so Les would make up these outlandish names and somehow Trishie stuck. It just drove her crazy, but then the kids picked it up and...' she kind of shrugged, maybe fearing that it sounded like they'd all been mean to the poor little old lady. 'I don't know... I guess that made it all right, because she started referring to herself that way.'

'You knew her pretty well?' I asked, and probably sounded just a bit too hopeful. It made her duck her head and she seemed to be watching her own hands smooth over the hem of her blouse.

'Oh yes,' she smiled, losing a bit of the strange giggliness, and turning just a bit nostalgic. 'She was such a dear. They both were. Treated the kids like their own grandkids. They used to come down for Christmas dinner every year.'

'They did?' Ruthie wanted to know, looking wide eyed. 'I don't remember!'

Her mother looked at her fondly. 'You were just a baby, sweetie.'

'I don't suppose you have any pictures of the house?' I had to ask, hoping it wasn't too bold a thing. 'Especially the yard?'

I needn't have worried, Mrs. Rubin fairly beamed. 'Of course! Why, the yard was the showcase of the neighborhood! Trishie was forever taking pictures of the kids in front of the flowers and the willow.'

'I'd love to see them,' I said, probably a bit too enthusiastically, and added on a hasty, 'if it's not too much trouble.'

'No trouble at all,' she assured me. 'I'll hunt them up and bring them by.'

'We'd appreciate it,' Heero interjected, and shifted his foot up a step in a clear signal that he was ready to go in the house. It surprised me; it wasn't really like him, and told me that his day really had been pretty crappy.

'Come on Ruthie,' Mrs. Rubin said dutifully. 'We need to get down to the Tikemeyer's before it gets any later.'

I handed over the cookie sign-up sheet and Ruthie looked at it before grinning at me blindingly. 'Wow! Thanks, Mr. Duo!'

'No problem, kiddo,' I told her and watched her skip down the steps to take her mother's hand. Mrs. Rubin seemed glad to have something to do with herself, and she said her goodbyes with that weird flushed look again.

We had neighbors named Tikemeyer?

'Duo,' Heero asked, stretching a hand out to help me to my feet. 'Just how many boxes of those cookies did you order?'

'Uh... ten?' I told him sheepishly.

'What in the hell are we going to do with ten boxes of cookies?' he wanted to know.

'Don't worry,' I snorted. 'I'll take them in to work. The guys are always bringing stuff in and putting it out by the coffee station. I've felt kind of bad for never having anything anyway.'

He rolled his eyes, but dropped it, following me around back and helping me pick up the tools to take in the house. We had a small shed near the south edge of the property, but had yet to replace the rusted old lock, so didn't use it.

'So you never got around to telling me about Rackham,' I prodded, wanting to know just what had him so beat. 'Quatre said he was a bit 'old school'.'

'Well Quatre is too polite,' Heero grumbled. 'The man is archaic to the point of pain. If he could pull in armored swat teams, I think he'd do it.'

He went on, in that vein, as we took ourselves and my new assortment of tools into the house, dumping them on the counter in my back room until we could deal with them properly. He'd obviously had a frustrating day and I offered a sympathetic ear while he vented. He doesn't very often, though I've never been sure how much of that had to do with the Preventers' lame-ass 'security clearance' deal, and how much was just his natural inclination to shield me from all annoyances.

I herded us through the house to the bathroom, listening to him growl about what a waste of time the entire day had been. It was there that I figured out just what it was that had made Mrs. Rubin so damn giggly. Probably wasn't the 'famous' status of her neighbors, but more likely the half pound of grass stuck in my hair. I huffed at Heero, but he was so engrossed in the telling of his day that he didn't even notice, and I let it go. Don't suppose there was much he could have done about it anyway, and I suppose I had started it. Though it would have been nice if he'd at least told me I looked like an idiot.

I got him stripped and pulled into the shower with me while he explained the ridiculous demands Rackham's aid had made on his boss's behalf. Washed his hair while he told me some of the things Wufei had suggested they do to meet those demands that involved duct tape and the shipping of dignitaries to South Seas islands. Uninhabited ones. By the time I'd enticed him into scrubbing my back, he'd worked it out of his system and then I proceeded to work it completely out of his mind.

We really needed to price a bigger water heater.

Later, after we'd eaten and fallen into bed, and said the hell with everything else, I lay listening to his breathing and tried to decide if I should be elated that he'd felt he could unburden himself to me like that, or depressed that he didn't do it any more often.

I had come to understand his protective streak where I was concerned, but it didn't alter the fact that I felt like I'd healed past the need. I wondered sometimes if he would ever achieve that same kind of healing.

Monday arrived with a set of sore muscles and an annoyance for the day that, once upon a time, I had not understood. Ground-bounder time structure is just rife with those sorts of manufactured, self-imposed irritants. In space, a day is a day is a... well, a cycle; we're structured around a whole different set of rules and nothing makes me miss that quite like the glare of Monday morning.

Heero was oddly quiet the next morning as we did the bathroom dance, brushing teeth and washing up around each other. It left me with a kind of pensive feeling, worrying that he might be regretting the talk of the previous evening. I was rather relieved to come up from rinsing my face to find myself caught up from behind.

'Was I whining last night?' he asked, a shamefaced little smile trying to break out. It made me laugh right out loud, trying to put the words 'Yuy' and 'whining' together in the same sentence.

'Venting,' I corrected. 'It's a much more manly term.'

He settled his chin on my shoulder and watched my reflection dry its face. 'Was I venting too much?'

I took a moment to regard his reflection in turn. 'I thought you were sharing. Sharing is good.'

He smiled softly, but couldn't quite help saying, 'It felt like whining.'

I twisted my head and kissed his cheek, it tasted vaguely of shaving cream. 'You've listened to me often enough.'

He sighed. 'Duo, you never complain about anything.'

I turned completely in his arms and tried to keep from rolling my eyes. 'God, you are so... besotted.'

I got the little, slightly smirky smile that usually leads us to the bedroom. 'Can't help it... I just love a man in coveralls.'

I snorted and straightened his collar while I was right there in his personal space anyway. 'You are never coming into the garage again, Yuy. That just gives me all kinds of creepy mental images.'

'Griff is totally not my type,' he dead-panned, and ducked out of the bathroom before I had time to retaliate where there were things close at hand like shaving cream and wet wash clothes.

My already iffy mental image stripped gears; Griff hadn't even been on my radar. 'Ewww! You asshole! How am I supposed to even look at the man today?' I called down the stairs after him, but he only laughed.

I went to finish getting dressed because it was time to leave for work. As I had half expected, we ended up having to drive separately. I didn't complain, but I find I rather miss the morning if we can't go together. It's sort of an enforced quiet time when we can talk without a lot of distractions. Though, the mood he was in, maybe it was just as well; if he started the boxers/briefs speculation about my boss, I'd have probably punched him, and there would have been an accident, and the whole morning would have just been shot to hell.

While most of the Preventer organization was all a twitter and involved in some way, shape or form with the conference, it didn't impact the garage all that much. We didn't have a lot to do with security until after the fact, when the bullet holes were being patched and brakes being replaced. Preventer agents, for the record, are damn hard on brakes for some reason. So while Heero, Wufei, God and HR only knew how many others were gearing up for the week from hell, I was settling in to a typical Monday morning. With nothing more interesting than a transmission job on the docket. Almost felt like cheating somehow.

I started the morning in the bay between Giles and Dave, pulling a ruptured radiator and listening with half an ear to them talking about taxes and bills and something somebody's kid had done. I thought they were just generally bitching about the cost of something, and wasn't paying that much attention. Turned out to be something sports oriented, and if I'd been listening, I might have anticipated it when they turned the conversation around to a different sports topic.

'Hey Duo,' Giles suddenly called. 'Softball practice starts in a couple of weeks, are you sure we can't talk you into signing up? They're still looking for a left fielder.'

Because, had I anticipated it, I might not have replied, 'But I'm right handed,' quite so seriously.

Dave laughed anyway, but Giles stepped out from under the car he had up on the rack to look at me. It made me realize it was one of those stupid statements, so I grinned cheekily and hoped he'd think I was joking.

'You don't know how to play, do you?' Giles asked, blowing the idea out of the water. I sighed and gave in to the inevitable.

'L2 wasn't real big into organized sports,' I told him dryly. 'We were more into... uh... keep-away and hide and seek.'

'We used to play hide and seek,' I heard Dave muse almost to himself, and Giles rolled his eyes at me theatrically, making me snicker. Dave's a great guy, but not always real quick on the uptake.

'If you'd come out and watch the games more often,' Giles said, ignoring Dave's trip down memory lane, 'you'd figure it out... it's not exactly rocket science.'

I was totally not getting into my weird intrusion issues with him, and just shrugged. 'Oh yeah... a bunch of grown men chasing each other around with a little white ball; sounds fascinating.'

He snorted, but stepped back under the car and went back to work.

'You oughta go to a couple of practices with Yuy,' Dave tossed in helpfully.

'Dave...' Giles warned, and Dave came out from under the hood of the Dodge he was working on to glare over my head at Giles.

'Hey, it ain't easy fittin' in to something like that!' he grumbled. 'I'm just sayin' it might be easier on Duo to kind of work up to it, is all.' Then he rattled around and pulled something out of his toolbox before going back to work. Left me and Giles both staring at him. Guy came out with stuff a little closer to the mark than you'd expect sometimes.

Since everybody else had gone back to work, I did too and let the conversation drift back to pee-wee soccer, whatever in the hell that was. Suppose Dave might have a point, as much as it pained me to admit it. I'd actually been dreading the start of the new season just because of the weird... issues, Heero and I had over it. Or I had over it. The previous season had come around while I'd been, in Heero's estimation, not up to it. Or, as he'd put it, 'not up to sitting in the hot sun'. Which sort of implied that maybe he expected me to go this season, being more 'up to it'. But he hadn't actually asked. And I suspect he wouldn't, even if he wanted me to go... not wanting to push. But if he didn't want me to go, he also wouldn't ask... would he?

I really have no idea why that one area had become something that loomed so much on the horizon. I think because softball had been something that Heero and Wufei had been doing together for some time before I ever came back into the picture, so my inserting myself into the middle of it felt kind of... weird. Not that actually playing was even a possibility. Well... maybe not an impossibility, if you know what I mean... I'm fairly confident that I could probably figure it out. But... not somewhere I was willing to go. Watching from some hypothetical bleachers was one thing; suiting up and playing would take 'intrusion' to a whole new level.

But anyway, back on Dave's track... maybe dropping by and watching a couple of practices might not be such a hideously bad idea? Less risk of embarrassing Heero if I at least watched enough to know what was going on. And maybe just a little bit of reassurance in Wufei's direction that I wasn't planning on taking up their sport.

Not that he'd ever said anything; I'm reasonably sure that the obsessive worrying at the notion like a psychotic rat terrier with a chew toy, was all in my own head, but... best to be on the safe side.

Sometimes I suspect I could benefit from a hamster in charge of neurotic fixations. Not that I needed another one; maybe George could take it up as a side-job? Thank God the rodents can't unionize.

I finished the radiator replacement and did a couple of oil changes that morning, deciding to leave the transmission for the afternoon. It was a much bigger job and would probably not be done by quitting time, but I'd decided I might just clock out and finish it anyway. No rush to get home; Heero and Wufei would be staying at the convention complex for the duration of the conference, so it's not like I had anything to go home to. Except maybe possums.

I was just putting my tools away, getting ready to head out for lunch when I felt a strange tension fill the garage. There is always noise in the bay, the sounds of tools and talk, engines and motors, so I'm not going to say things went suddenly silent, but there was a definite change as voices stilled. I glanced up and realized that everybody around me was doing the same; noticing a change and looking to see what was up. I followed the gazes to see that the garage had a visitor. And after a second, I could feel some of those same gazes shifting to me as well.

The guy sitting in the wheel chair just outside Griff's office was not somebody I had ever expected to see again.

Mickey. He of the over-loaded engine hoist. He of the attitude. He of the missing leg. I honestly can't tell you what I felt, looking at the kid. I think the first thought was something vague about wishing I'd left for lunch about five minutes sooner. After that was just a strange mix of discomfort, guilt, pity, irritation and more guilt for feeling irritated. Then I realized that the whole damn crew was waiting to see what I was going to do.

It was something of a jolt. A weird little jolt. Not like I'm some sort of damn foreman, or team leader or any other thing that made me any sort of 'go to' guy. I was not used to having people follow my lead in what amounted to a social situation. Kind of sucked, to be honest. I sure as hell wasn't going to be able to just quietly slip out the side door.

It took me a couple of seconds to mentally step away and admit that if it had been anybody else sitting there, any other fellow mechanic showing up after having been hurt on the job, that we'd all have been over there crowding around him and asking questions. But somehow all the guys were holding back and making it my call.

Mickey was not exactly the prodigal son returned. He'd never been anybody's particular buddy.

But... right is right and wrong is wrong, and sometimes what you feel has nothing to do with it.

So I tossed aside the rag I'd been wiping tools down with, and started walking across the bay. Never mind that I just wanted to kick a couple of co-workers for essentially making me the point man on something I'd have sooner not have dealt with. Never mind that the stare I was getting from Mickey made it unlikely that it was going to be a welcome conversation.

I noticed two things as I made that trek; there was an older man in the boss's office, talking to Griff in a serious looking way, and that once I started moving... so did the rest of the guys.

At least they were going to back me up.

Not that Mickey looked like he was exactly up to wrestling me to the ground or anything. It had been months since the accident, but... the kid didn't really look like he'd come to any sort of grips with his situation. He just looked... pissed.

Pissed at the world.

I really did not want to have to deal with him.

Then I was standing right in front of him, and I had this over-whelming urge to squat down to be on his level, but that made me remember all the times that Heero had done the same thing to me. I had hated it; it had made me feel like a damn child or something. Having that sudden memory well up, and then wrench around to show me things from the other side, pretty much just left me standing there staring at Mickey with my jaw working, trying to get my head back in the right reality and find words that applied.

And here I thought I'd given up the fish imitation.

Giles, God bless the man, only let the silence hang there for a moment before he tossed in something appropriate. It was a greeting of some sort, I couldn't tell you what, but there were echoes and things were finally more like they should have been. I let words spill out, probably repeating something I was hearing, and just felt bad for botching the moment. But really... what the hell do you say?

'Sorry you're an idiot'?

'Wish I could say we missed you around here'?

'I told you so'?

Yeah... perhaps not.

[back] [cont]